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A win-win approach to asylum seekers

Here's what rechanneling funds into improving South Tel Aviv and training African migrants would accomplish
A group of South Sudanese refugees gather in Tel Aviv to protest against a deportation in June. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)
A group of South Sudanese refugees gather in Tel Aviv to protest against a deportation in June. (photo credit: Roni Schutzer/Flash90)

The public debate over the Sudanese and Eritrean asylum seekers has revolved around two conflicting negative narratives. The government views their existence as a heavy burden on Israeli society and South Tel Aviv residents. Israel’s human rights organizations and advocates regard them as unfortunate victims of circumstance and government policies. But there is another way of approaching this dilemma as an opportunity for Israel.

If not voluntary or forced deportation, the solution most favored by the government, what are the alternatives? A good refugee policy for Israel will do no harm and strive for a win-win solution that will provide concrete benefits to the residents of South Tel Aviv and our African asylum seekers, who are clearly the main victims of our government’s immigration policies.

Over the past three months, the media have been devoting more attention to the controversy over forced deportation, asking tough questions and demanding facts and honest answers from those interviewed. At the same time, more and more Israelis have become actively involved in debate and action for and against the government’s policy of forced deportation.

For the first time, large numbers of Israelis have had the opportunity to hear the voices and views of Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers and to see them as resilient human beings rather than one-dimensional victims, objects of charity, or criminals.

Most Eritrean and Sudanese asylum seekers came to Israel to seek protection and freedom. Their narrative rings true when they describe the “ethnic cleaning” (Sudan) and unlimited servitude (Eritrea) that led them to flee their countries and the hell they had to go through to get to Israel through the Sinai desert. While critical of Israel’s harsh refugee policies that include imprisonment, failure to process refugee status applications fairly, and threats of forced deportation, the asylum seekers appreciate Israel and their freedom and right to demonstrate.

Asylum seekers did not ask to be sent to South Tel Aviv. When they entered Israel, most were jailed and then given a one-way bus ticket to Tel Aviv’s central bus station. This was done without a plan to house them and without consulting the Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv who saw their neighborhoods overwhelmed by thousands of unknown African asylum seekers. Like the African asylum seekers, Israeli residents of South Tel Aviv are also victims of Israel’s flawed immigration policies. Many South Tel Aviv residents want the asylum seekers to leave because they now have become a minority and feel less secure and comfortable in their own neighborhoods.

Most African asylum seekers are aware that their massive presence has disrupted the lives of South Tel Aviv residents. Many South Tel Aviv residents understand the plight of African asylum seekers and wish them well, even if elsewhere.

A recent demonstration held in the heart of South Tel Aviv brought African asylum seekers and residents together who loudly proclaimed that they were both against forced deportation and for South Tel Aviv’ neglected neighborhoods. The demonstration drew more than 20,000 people. It also revealed that there is a strong and growing constituency supporting opportunities for a win-win solution for South Tel Aviv, African asylum seekers, and the country by ending forced deportation:

For South Tel Aviv residents and neighborhoods

The hundreds of millions of dollars now allocated to finance prisons, detention centers, and deporting African asylum seekers can be sent to South Tel Aviv to improve housing, infrastructure, public services, and training to upgrade job skills. Loans to small businesses, enforcement of housing codes, financial and technical assistance for renovating apartments, and clean-up programs can revitalize neglected slum neighborhoods. Increased police presence combined with remaining African asylum seekers and residents working together to patrol neighborhoods can lower crime rates and lessen social tensions. Opportunities for employment and access to health, education, housing, and public services outside of South Tel Aviv will provide incentives for asylum seekers to move and will reduce population density and demands on existing public infrastructure and services.

For African Asylum Seekers

Closing the Holot detention facility in the Negev desert, abandoning forced deportation policies, ending incitement, and promising not to deport asylum seekers before their applications for refugee have been processed fairly will give asylum seekers relief from harassment and criminalization. Elimination of government policies that withhold 20 percent of asylum seekers’ salaries and punish employers for hiring “illegal’ asylum seekers will enable asylum seekers to pay more taxes, contribute to the national health system, and afford better housing. Training and employment in areas of labor shortages in Israel will upgrade skills and expand opportunities for employment. Special training and educational programs can prepare asylum seekers to assume leadership roles when they return to their home countries and to work in other African countries

For Israel

Ending forced deportation will mark the end of a shameful episode and bring government more in line with traditional Jewish and democratic values. Establishment of fair and speedy procedures for processing of asylum seeker applications for refugee status will put Israel in conformance with international law and standards. Providing educational opportunities and training for African asylum seekers for leadership roles and in innovative technologies needed to accelerate African development will enable Israel to do good and to do well and enhance good relations in Africa. Treating African asylum seekers as an asset and bridge to Africa can become an effective antidote to BDS and anti-Israel propaganda labeling Israel as a racist state.

Let’s thank the residents of South Tel Aviv fighting racism, neglect of their neighborhoods, and forced deportation. Let’s also thank our African asylum seekers for fighting for their rights with courage, dignity, and discipline. We have much to learn from them about decency, mutual respect, and solidarity. Let’s follow their example and move on to win-win solutions.

About the Author
Sheldon Gellar is a Jerusalem-based Africanist scholar and international democracy and development consultant. His work is based on research and lessons learned from living in five different cultures, Metropolitan New York, the American Mid-West, France, Africa, and Israel.
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